Journalist Sue Leonard was on the spot at the West Cork Literary Festival to hear international bestseller Anita Shreve interviewed by Kate Thompson, and also to attend Ireland’s first Writer Idol, an opportunity for Anita to meet some of Ireland’s newest writers. A longer version of Sue’s interview with Anita below, was published in The Irish Examiner.
It was Tuesday July 10th, and in the Maritime Hotel, Bantry, there was a buzz of anticipation. The West Cork Literary Festival was well underway, and there was a massive audience waiting to hear Anita Shreve.
It proved a wonderful evening. Kate Thompson introduced Anita, illustrating why she loves the books so much; Anita read; Kate asked questions; and then the audience had their turn. Anita was frank, open and was clearly enjoying herself.
She’d chosen to talk about The Weight of Water– even though that book was published back in 1997. Her fifth, of fifteen novels, it tells two, intertwining stories. The first was based on a real life dual murder from the 1800’s, and the second is about a poet, Thomas, and his difficult marriage. A superb, emotionally charged read, it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, and was made into a movie starring Elizabeth Hurley and Sean Penn.
Earlier in the day, Anita had joined Literary Agent Marianne Gunn O’Connor and Publishing Director, Suzanne Baboneau, for Ireland’s first, and hugely successful, Writer Idol event. Writers had pre-submitted the first page of a novel, work that was to be read aloud to the ‘judges’ by Kate Thompson. The entries were anonymous, to save the audience’s blushes. When they heard a writing blunder, the panel member raised a hand. When a second hand went up, the reading stopped. (Think Graham Norton’s red chair.) The judges then critiqued the work.
Before the readings, Anita explained this was, essentially, a game. But with a serious edge.
“You only have a page in which to grab a reader in a bookshop,” she said. “At best a page and a half. You need excellent writing; and you must have either a very strong voice or the start of an amazing plot.”
There was a huge variation of styles and genres, but out of over thirty entries read, only two passed the test, and gained applause. The judges admitted they were disappointed by the standard. There was little original writing. Some pieces started well, but lost momentum within a paragraph or two.
Grabbing the reader in the first page of a book is something Anita knows all about. Talking to her on the phone, in advance of her trip, I asked her why she had chosen to revisit The Weight of Water for her reading following the Writer Idol event.
“I wanted to because I think it will have some resonance in Ireland,” she says. “I think Irish people relate to a novel in which the landscape is a character; it seems from my reading of Irish writers that landscape is always important. Also, there is that merging of history and the contemporary, and I think that Ireland is never far from its history.”
Her books have become almost a brand; a genre in themselves; yet with each, she explores different ground. There is no ‘typical’ Anita Shreve. Her latest, Rescue, centres on a paramedic and his struggles to put right secrets from the past.
“None of my books are alike, but they have the same basic chord underneath. It’s the settings, the tones of the speakers and the history that is different. It’s because I’ve always written what I wanted to write, and do not write to please an audience.”
Life hasn’t always been easy for Anita. She’s now happily married to the man she met as a teenager. But she went through two marriages and two divorces before she found that happiness. Does such emotional turmoil help a writer like her?
“I’m not sure about the emotional turmoil, but for me, writing comes out of deprivation. The creative impulse comes from reading books and wanting to imitate them, but the deep well from which I draw – that was necessary to stay alive.”
So writing, for her, is therapy?
“Oh, 100pc yes. Without question. I did not have a terrible childhood, but it was solitary. And I think, out of that I had a need to create. It’s central. There was no way I would not have ended up doing this. There is a, likely scenario, that I could have done this and not made a living, in which case I would not have continued to do it, and for many years I scraped by, and that was enough. That was all I cared about.”
It took a while, though, to write that first novel.
“I was 43 when it was published.” First, Anita became a teacher. Then she started out writing short stories for literary journals, switching to journalism to make a living. “I was one of those journalists trying to find my way back to doing this. I knew I was better as a fiction writer, but could not make money. So I got to the place where I’d saved a little money and could make this happen.”
She’d worked in Kenya for a time – and she used the setting for, The Last Time they Met and the more recent, A Change in Altitude. Is there much of herself in her characters?
“My stock answer is ‘no.’ But it’s hard to say. I share a sensibility with some of them, the male as well as the female. In A Change of Altitude, many of the observations were my observations. I did climb Mount Kenya. I did reach the top and I was the only one. But I was so slow, to everyone’s annoyance.”
Anita has two children, and two stepchildren. They’re adults now, but when they were small, they were barely aware that their mother wrote.
“They’d see me in my bathrobe when they left, and when they came home, I’d be standing there, waiting for them.
“I still write in my bathrobe,” she says. “I don’t want anything to interfere between the bed and the desk. Having a shower, getting dressed and doing my hair, that would be a huge interference.
“The process is close to day dreaming, but you are bringing a certain consciousness to bear. You are driving the car, and you realise you have missed your exit because you are rewriting the dialogue from a discussion you had the night before to suit your narrative.
“I worry about new writers who use blogs,” she says. “I worry that a great fiction writer may be writing for an audience rather than themselves. They should be alone in a room where nobody will see their writing for a year. It’s such a different process.”
Crucially, Anita told me, she spends half her time on the writing of a book working on the first fifty pages. So how did she feel the writers she heard at the Writer Idol event could improve their work?
Don’t give too much background detail. You need to move things on.
Don’t descend into cliché; never use, designer stubble, smooth skin, cold sweat, beating hearts.
NEVER start with a character waking up in the morning.
Don’t introduce too many characters; this caused confusion.
Always write for yourself; don’t write what you think will sell.
To shine you must have an original voice. You have to be different.
Be yourself. Be confident.
Rewrite. Read your work aloud. And read the first page of books you love.
You MUST hook the reader. Maybe use a prologue.